The look of the AR-15: where symbolism fits in to the gun debate

Canadian gun owners who want fewer restrictions on the controversial AR-15 rifle say it's demonized for its aesthetics and associations with movies and the military. We hear from one owner, and hear an opposing view on why those associations matter.
Arnold Schwarzenneger poses with an M-16 rifle, the military version of the AR-15, in this promotional photograph for the film Predator (Image via 20th Century Fox)

There are many different ways you can compare guns: what size ammunition they fire, what speed a bullet travels after leaving the barrel, the kinetic energy a bullet unleashes upon impact, how many rounds per minute they unload.

Another way to do it, is by looks. To the people behind a recent petition to Parliament concerning the AR-15 rifle, politicians and gun control advocates focus too much on appearance. 
Three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedronelli/The Associated Press)

The AR-15 was originally designed for the US military, where it was known as the M-16. The military version is fully-automatic, meaning it will keep firing as long as you hold the trigger down until you run out of rounds. The civilian version is semi-automatic, meaning it reloads itself after each round is fired, and its rate of fire is only limited by how quickly you can pull the trigger.

It's a popular gun in the United States. It's at the centre of that country's debate over gun laws. Variations on the weapon have been used in several mass shootings in the US.

Under Canadian gun laws, the AR-15 is 'restricted,' meaning it's legal to own with a proper license, but it needs to be registered with the RCMP and can only be used on a firing range. The goal of the petition is to move variants of the AR-15 from the 'restricted' to 'non-restricted' category, meaning it can be treated like any other standard hunting rifle. 

There are already semi-automatic hunting rifles with similar specifications that are 'non-restricted' in Canada.

To people like Rod Giltaca, a firearms instructor and President of the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights, the AR-15 is treated differently under Canadian law because of its image. 

The reason why the AR-15 is restricted while all these other firearms are not restricted is because Arnold Schwarzenegger shot the Predator with it. Because Chuck Norris broke out the POWs in Delta Force one and two, and he carried the AR-15. There's no mechanical difference.- Rod Giltaca, President of the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights
As an example, Giltaca points to another gun called the Ruger Mini 14. The Ruger Mini 14 is 'non-restricted,' meaning it's treated the same as any hunting rifle, and it doesn't need to be registered.
A Ruger Mini 14, a semi-automatic rifle in the style of a 'ranch rifle.' (Ruger Firearms)
 The gun can use the same ammunition as the AR-15, is semi-automatic, and fires a bullet at approximately the same speed. It was also the weapon used in the killing of 14 women at the École Polytechnique Massacre in 1989.
That's a rifle that was designed to be used on a ranch, to shoot coyotes or medium-sized game. You have a hunting rifle meant for life on the farm, used to hurt people. By virtue of the tool it is, it's inherently dangerous.- Rod Giltaca

To Giltaca and others behind the petition, the debate about the AR-15 is informed primarily by the cultural references and military associations with the weapon, not its capabilities.

While non-restricted hunting rifles like the Ruger Mini-14 have similar capabilities, the Department of Justice says the AR-15 is restricted in Canada because of its 'lineage' to the M-16.

While Giltaca and other gun owners consider the look and origin of a gun to be a superficial distinction, Jooyoung Lee, a sociologist at the University of Toronto who studies shootings, says it's not superficial at all. He says understanding the image of a gun, and its cultural associations, is a critical part of understanding gun violence. 

People, when they buy guns, look for a number of different qualities. One is the look of a gun, the history of a gun, another is the symbolism of a gun. So for example, the AK-47... when people go out and buy the AK-47 they're not just buying a gun because of its performance or its look, but because of the history it evokes. And the same can be said about the AR-15.- Jooyoung Lee, University of Toronto

To Lee, the symbolism of the AR-15 revolves around military masculinity, and contributes to a culture that fosters gun violence. 

(They are) things a person can use to construct a heroic, bad-ass masculine self. And unfortunately it's part of the conversation we often gloss over when we look for reasons as to why these mass shootings happen. I think we have to examine a lot of different things going in to these shootings, and masculinity and violence being so intricately linked to masculinity is another part of the story.- Jooyoung Lee
An advertisement for the Bushmaster AR-15, which explicitly connects gun ownership to masculinity. (Bushmaster Firearms)
Lee points to the 2014 killings in Isla Vista, California, where the shooter specifically cited his 'existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires' as the reason for his rampage.

To Lee, the version of masculinity expressed by the culture of military-looking weapons, is part of a societal force that fosters mass shootings and violence. 

The federal government says it has no intention of reclassifying the AR-15 to match guns like the Ruger Mini-14, so the semi-automatic weapon will remain at the firing range.

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